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DOD officials disclosed names of military personnel who helped kill terrorist leader, despite commanders' concerns about their safety. By Shane Harris

From the looks of it, about the only people who were reluctant to help two top filmmakers on their movie about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden were the people who actually planned the raid and pulled it off. 

All the other key players, from the Pentagon to the White House to the CIA were on board and eager to tell the Obama administration’s side of the story to Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow, who, the day after the raid in May 2011, set to work on Zero Dark Thirty, trying to get access to top officials at the Defense Department and the CIA, as well as in the secretive confines of special operators who planned and executed the mission.  

The administration's exuberant, occasionally giddy assistance to the filmmakers, who had previously collaborated on an Oscar-winning film about the war in Iraq, is documented in a Defense Department Inspector General report obtained and posted online by the Project on Government Oversight. It finds that Leon Panetta, who at the time of the raid was the CIA Director, revealed names of special operations personnel involved in the raid, as well as other information that was designated Top Secret. 

Pentagon officials were also eager to assist the filmmakers and arrange meetings with people who helped plan the raid. In the course of these discussions, administration officials revealed the names of military special operators who were not supposed to be publicly identified, partly over concerns that they or their families could be targeted for retribution. 

But in contrast to the Obama administration's aggressive pursuit and prosecution of unauthorized disclosures of classified information and other leaks, apparently no action was taken against Panetta or the other officials who freely shared sensitive information with the filmmakers. Military officers thought operational security and protection of their forces should trump all. Political and policy level officials were not exactly indifferent to that concern, but they were keen to tell the administration’s side of this extraordinary story, and to ensure their bosses came off in the best possible light. 

Among those pushing hardest to cooperate with Bigelow and Boal was Douglas Wilson, then the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public affairs and the Pentagon’s top communications strategist. 

Wilson leaned on Adm. Eric Olson, the Special Operations commander, to cooperate with the filmmakers' research about the raid. Wilson noted that Panetta “wants the [Defense] Department to cooperate fully with the makers of the [bin Laden] movie.” Michael Vickers, the Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence, was about to meet with the filmmakers and “want[s] to know what [to] say,” Wilson told Olson in an e-mail. 

Olson said Boal and Bigelow could use a set of talking points that had been drawn up “to ensure accuracy and provide context to the movie project.” Then he reminded Wilson that one of his special operations planners, who had been involved in preparations for the raid, should “not be identified by name as having participated in any way.” 

This planner, according to the inspector general report, apparently knew many of the details about the preparations for taking down bin Laden and how the raid unfolded. He was so involved that as negotiations with the filmmakers unfolded, the planner was seen as qualified to speak on behalf of Olson, as well as the commander of the elite Joint Special Operations Command, Adm. Bill McRaven. 

Olson was especially sensitive to protecting the planner’s identity from public disclosure. And McRaven said keeping the names of all those involved in the planning and execution of the raid a “top aspect” of the mission. The Defense Department had provided “inordinate security” to the operators and their families, according to McRaven, and had gone so far as to brief them on whom to call if they noticed anything suspicious at their homes. 

But at an interview in the Pentagon with Bigelow and Boal on July 15, 2011, Vickers gave the filmmakers with the name of that special operations planner. The next day, Boal e-mailed a public affairs desk officer at the Pentagon to “obtain access” to the planner. 

Vickers and Wilson exchanged e-mails. “Very many thanks for this,” Wilson wrote, referring to his meeting with Bigelow and Boal. “Think they came away very happy” from the meeting. Wilson said he’d put the filmmakers in touch with Olson’s “key planner,” and that this “should complete for now their requests of DOD.” 

Wilson exchanged a few excited emails with George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, who had also made himself available to Bigelow and Boal. “We’re going to the premiere of the Boal/Bigelow movie next year,” Little wrote. 

“We’ll be hosting it :-),” Wilson replied. 

Little, who was director of CIA public affairs at the time of the raid, said that Panetta hoped Al Pacino would play him in the movie. “That’s what he wants, no joke!” 

“They will,” Wilson replied. 

Panetta was portrayed in the film by James Gandolfini. 

At the same time, that special operations planner was sending e-mails to Pentagon officials, and speaking with Vickers, about the meeting he was expected to have with Bigelow and Boal. The planner wanted to talk first with a DOD public affairs officer, who noted in an e-mail exchange that press accounts were circulating about administration officials possibly providing the filmmakers with special access as well as classified information about the raid, something the public affairs officer denied. 

“We may want to let the dust settle a little,” the public affairs officer advised the special operations planner. 

According to the planner, this was his last communication with the public affairs officer, and he never met with Bigelow and Boal. 

But Boal did attend an awards ceremony at CIA headquarters on June 24, 2011, that recognized the efforts to track down bin Laden. DOD special operators were present, but not in a “cover status” that would have used a guise to protect where they worked and what they did, the report found. “No precautionary measures” were taken to keep Boal from identifying any of the operators. 

It was at this ceremony that Boal was given another name of a DOD special operator who was involved in the bin Laden mission, the report states. This operator was not in a cover status, but the individual's name was not supposed to be publicly revealed.  

There were conflicting accounts of whether the awards ceremony was a small gathering or a large affair, and whether it was really all that sensitive. According to one attendee, special operators were present in uniform with their names visible on their uniforms. 

But the DOD tried to stop Boal from attending, according to the report. A public affairs officer at the department claimed that Panetta’s chief of staff, Jeremy Bash, intervened and insisted that Boal come. Bash denied this, and said the decision to let Boal attend the ceremony came from discussions between the CIA’s public affairs shop and the filmmakers. (Little was the head of CIA public affairs at the time.) 

At the event, Panetta gave a speech and “specifically recognized the unit that conducted the raid and identified the ground commander by name,” the report says. He also provided information designated Top Secret and Secret--the report doesn’t say what the information was. 

Later, McRaven was personally introduced to Boal. He was “surprised and shocked” that a filmmaker was allowed to the ceremony at CIA headquarters, the report says. The event was closed to the press. 

Ultimately, no classified tactics, techniques, or procedures were revealed in the back and forth between Obama administration officials and the filmmakers, the report found. And McRaven and his subordinates said they weren't concerned that they had been. 

Still, the apparent lack of response by the administration to keep sensitive information from being publicly revealed stands in contrast to the aggressive attempts to staunch leaks of other secrets and details about intelligence and military operations. The episode also underscores the distinction between authorized disclosures--which these all appeared to be--and unauthorized ones. 

Posted at 08:56 AM/ET, 06/05/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()

Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio are teaming up for a new biopic about former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. 

Deadline reports

"Gorbachev serves as a consultant on the project, which captures the dissolution of the USSR through his eyes. ... The movie, written by former Hell On Wheels showrunner John Shiban and executive produced by DiCaprio, Jennifer Killoran, Hanks, Goetzman and Industry Entertainment’s Keith Addis, stems from DiCaprio’s relationship with Gorbachev. The two met when the Russian Nobel Peace Prize winner appeared in DiCaprio’s environmental movie The 11th Hour." 

Also of note, former Washington Post Moscow bureau chief David Hoffman will be serving as a consultant on the film. Hoffman's tremendous book Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, which won the Pulitzer Prize, would be essential material for anyone making a film about the Soviet Union in Gorbachev's time. It's good to hear that Hoffman will be involved with the production. 

Posted at 02:06 PM/ET, 04/04/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Marg Helgenberger has been cast as the "director" of Cyber Command in a new TV pilot. At right, the real-life CyberCom chief, Keith Alexander. (Helgenbeger photo s_bukley /

CBS has ordered a pilot for a new TV drama set at US Cyber Command, the homebase for the military's cyber defense and warfare activities. The show, called "Intelligence," is based around a man who has a microchip implanted in his brain that lets him sense the electromagnetic spectrum. I'm thinking Sneakers meets "The Mentalist." I love it already. 

Deadline has news today that the producers have cast the role of CyberCom director. And she looks nothing like the real one. 

Marg Helgenberger, formerly of "CSI," will be playing what appears to be the fictional version of Gen. Keith Alexander, the real head of CyberCom, and also the director of the National Security Agency. Deadline reports Helgenberger is playing the "director." The head of CyberCom goes by "commander."  

The cast is coming together now, and I don't know much more about the plot than what's in the trades. The show's creator, Michael Seitzman, is a writer probably best known for the screenplay of North Country. "Intelligence" is described as a procedural in the vein of another CBS techno-drama, "Person of Interest," which is about data-mining and has some connections to my book, The Watchers. The creators of that show had read the book and gave it to some of their cast.  

CBS still has to decide to pick up "Intelligence." But this looks to be one of the more timely dramas on the slate of upcoming pilots, and it would appear to fit with Hollywood's recent appetite for national-security themed shows. More to come--I hope. 


Posted at 03:54 PM/ET, 03/01/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Argo will win for good reasons. Zero Dark Thirty will lose for the wrong ones. By Shane Harris

This has been one of the more unpredictable and hotly contested Oscar races in recent memory. It's also hard to remember a year when so many movies about America at war or in conflict have been up for multiple Academy Awards. There are 24 nominations between Lincoln, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty. And while some prime categories are still toss ups, a national security-themed pic is almost certain to win Best Picture. 

It won't be Zero Dark Thirty. The year's most controversial major film has five nominations, including the top prize. But the Academy will not honor a movie that some members--dare we say many?--see as an endorsement of torture. The snubbing of previous winner Kathryn Bigelow for a Best Director nomination has to be read as a political statement on the part of the directors branch of the Academy. Screenwriter Mark Boal has a chance for original screenplay, but it's a slim one. As for ZDT's remaining major category, Best Actress, Pete Hammond at Deadline makes a persuasive case for why this one's a big toss up. 

Personally, I think ZDT wasn't the year's best film. (I'd give it to Lincoln.) But I think it has been unfairly judged against its competitors. The movie is being held to an almost journalistic standard of truth-telling. Granted, the filmmakers kind of asked for this when they said they took a journalistic approach to writing and shooting the film. But while critics have pointed out that Lincoln and Argo have some significant historical inaccuracies, no one is judging them as harshly for it. If Lincoln doesn't win Best Picture, it won't be because of what Tony Kushner and Steven Spielberg may have gotten wrong about the Connecticut delegation's vote on the 13th Amendment. Nor will it be penalized for re-imagining aspects of one of the most fateful periods in U.S. history, which it does to great effect, in my opinion. 

But Zero Dark Thirty is being judged, harshly, for what people think it gets wrong about recent history. This is an insurmountable dilemma for the filmmakers. I think the Academy should be free to vote however it pleases. But I'd prefer to see ZDT lose for artistic reasons; like, for instance, the second half of the movie feels out of step in tone and pacing with the first half, like they tacked an historical reenactment onto a spy movie. But alas, stick a fork in this one. 

That leaves Argo and Lincoln as the frontrunners, and I'm betting on Argo. If for no other reason than it has major momentum going into the race, having snatched up the Golden Globe and the major guild awards. Ben Affleck was passed over for a Best Director nomination. (Academy directors have long been seen as turning up their noses at actors who step behind the camera.) But I don't think that significantly diminishes the movie's chances for the top win.  

 Aside from momentum and buzz, Argo is just an excellent film, and that counts for a lot. And don't overlook the fact that it's a story about Hollywood doing good for America. The Academy loves to pat itself on the back. Never mind that the truth is stretched in this movie too. It's a great flick, with a big Hollywood ending. Those are all good reasons for it to win. 

The possible sneak attack in all of this is Ang Lee's Life of Pi. It has the second highest number of nominations, after Lincoln. Lee may well win the director prize in large part because he turned a book that many people saw as "unfilmable" into a dazzling master work of visual storytelling. If Lee wins, it may bode well for the movie's Best Picture chances, too. The Academy has only once given the top prize to a movie that wasn't nominated for Best Director: Driving Miss Daisy, in 1989. 


Posted at 04:16 PM/ET, 02/22/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
The WikiLeaks founder sees himself as "Frodo carrying the ring and Sauran," and has "cleverly transformed" his personal problems into "a political issue." By Shane Harris

Documentary director Alex Gibney is premiering his new film We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks at the Sundance Film Festival this week. Gibney spent many hours with Julian Assange, WikiLeaks' founder, although he didn't formally interview him, he says in a revealing interview with The Daily Beastbecause Assange demanded $1 million and asked Gibney to spy on his own interview subjects and share "intel" with Assange.  

Assange has said the U.S. is on a "witch hunt" to prosecute him and and his supporters, and he has said he's being tracked by Western intelligence agencies and is the victim of a "smear campaign" in connection to accusations of sexual assault against him. Gibney thinks that's unlikely. 

The Daily Beast noted, "Julian did get more and more paranoid, as the documentary states, as his popularity rose, to the point where he thought he was worthy of all these crazy espionage plots."

"It's fantastic, isn't it?" Gibney said. "It's as if he is Frodo carrying the ring and Sauran, the great eye in the American kingdom of Mordor, only has their eye on Julian and devotes all their resources to bringing him down. I'm sure there were a lot of chuckles within the Department of Defense when Julian Assange got mixed up with a condom case in Sweden, but I don't think they were planting CIA agents there. Julian's imagination is just fantastic."

The condom case refers to allegations by two women in Sweden that Assange had unprotected sex with them. Gibney noted that no charges have been filed against Assange. (He is wanted for questioning.) Gibney investigated the case. "There is absolutely no evidence that I was able to find other than that these women were mad at him, and they just wanted him to get an AIDS test. He refused, so they went to the police to force him to get an AIDS test." 

Gibney says it was the Sweden case that changed his mind about Assange, for whom he initially had a lot of sympathy. 

"My perception changed fundamentally because I investigated the Swedish case. Initially, it seemed to me that Julian and his supporters were correct, and it was probably some kind of stunt to embarrass Julian at a moment when he was leaking all these documents. I investigated it and came to the conclusion that it was just the opposite. It was a personal matter that Julian cleverly transformed into a political issue."

Posted at 09:51 AM/ET, 01/24/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Let’s peel back the aliases and look at who these folks really are. By Shane Harris
The makers of Zero Dark Thirty used the real name of Adm. Bill McRaven, played by Christopher Stanley (left), but an alias for the CIA officer who helped track Osama bin Laden, played by Jessica Chastain. (Photo: Sony Pictures)

Zero Dark Thirty, the new movie about the CIA's hunt for Osama bin Laden, premieres nationwide today. The film is in contention for a Best Picture Oscar, and it has already generated a whopping share of controversy

The movie purports to be based on real events. But the filmmakers chose to change the names of most of the major characters, some of whom are or were CIA officers. So, let's peel back the aliases and look at who these folks really are.

First, there are two characters whose real names are used, either in the credits or in the film itself. 

The first is CIA chief of staff Jeremy Bash, who is credited in the movie only by his first name. He's also got the distinction of being the only character who's real name is actually spoken in the film. (The "CIA Director" calls him Jeremy in an elevator.) The chief of staff is played by John Barrowman, who you may recognize as the lead from the BBC sci-fi adventure series Torchwood.

Adm. William McRaven, former head of the Joint Special Operations Command, is also portrayed in the film. But his name is never uttered. He's just clearly the senior officer in charge after the successful SEAL raid on bin Laden's compound. He relays word back to Washington that a CIA officer has visually confirmed bin Laden's identity. Now, this is a little odd, but McRaven is listed in the IMDB credits as "McCraven." I don't remember whether the name was also misspelled in the film. Nevertheless, the filmmakers aren't hiding his identity. McRaven/McCraven is played by Christopher Stanley, aka Betty Draper's second husband, Henry Francis, on Mad Men.

Now for the aliases. 

"Maya," the protagonist played by Jessica Chastain (up for a Best Actress Oscar), is based on a real CIA officer whose name hasn't been revealed. But Greg Miller of the Washington Post has a widely-read piece on what the real Maya is like, and how she differs from her on-screen version. Some at the CIA aren't too pleased with all the glory she gets in the movie. 

Maya's close friend at the CIA, "Jessica," appears to be based on Jennifer Matthews, another real CIA officer who was killed, along with six others working for the agency, in a suicide bombing in Afghanistan in 2009. We profiled Matthews in the magazine in 2010. And Joby Warrick's book The Triple Agent chronicles Matthews and the bombing. 

Leon Panetta is also protrayed in the film, by James Gandolifini. He is credited as "CIA Director," and obviously Panetta was in that position at the time of the raid. But the filmmakers also included one distinguishing characteristic of the outgoing CIA chief; namely, his fondness for lobbing the F-bomb. Panetta is famously foul-mouthed, and fiercely proud of it

The true identities of the remaining significant characters are murkier. 

The SEAL who fires the fatal shot at bin Laden could be drawn from Matt Bissonnette, who is the only member of the raid team to have written a book about it, and who did shoot bin Laden. In the film, the SEAL (he is not called Matt) is rather in awe of what he has just done, and seems to grasp, as does one of his buddies, his now indelible role in history. But in his memoir, Bissonnette didn't cast himself as uniquely heroic or important. 

The filmmakers also didn't use the name of the "Pakistani doctor" who reportedly helped the CIA try to match the DNA of people living in bin Laden's compound with the terrorist's genetic data, which the agency had on file. You barely see the doctor in the movie, but he is Shakil Afridi, and he was profiled recently in GQ by Matthieu Aikins. 

The character "National Security Advisor" looks like an amalgam of John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, and Tom Donilon, who is actually the National Security Adviser. This is confusing, though. The actor, Stephen Dillane, of the HBO series Game of Thrones, doesn't sound like Brennan or Donilon, but he sort of acts like Brennan. Gruff. No smiles. He also appears intimately familiar with CIA tradecraft and counterterrorism operations--another reason why this character is probably meant to be Brennan, a former CIA officer and the reported keeper of President Obama's terrorist kill list. "Game of Drones" anyone? 

The character known as "The Wolf," a top-level CIA officer (you can tell by his big office) and a practicing Muslim (he prays in said office) must be this man, the chief of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center, known publicly only as Roger. He "hunts" Al Qaeda. So he's The Wolf. Get it? 

The character "George" is a rather ambiguous role. He's the CIA officer in charge of Maya and her team of analysts tracking bin Laden; she harangues him mercilessly over how long it's taking to get the authorization to go in and kill the fugitive terrorist. George also answers to higher authorities, namely The Wolf. So we'll count George, played by Mark Strong (who was outstanding in the 2011 remake of Tinker Tailor Solider Spy), as a still anonymous CIA boss who was integral in the hunt--and who's maybe a little put out by all the attention "Maya" is getting.  

Finally, there's the detained terrorist, "Ammar," whose brutal interrogation scenes have generated most of the film's controversy. (He is subjected to waterboarding, forced to stand for hours on end, stripped of his pants in the presence of a woman, and shut in a wooden box.) I presume this character, who is accused in the movie of funneling money to the 9/11 hijackers, is Ammar al-Baluchi, who is publicly accused of doing just that and is currently on trial in a military commission with four other men, including Khalid Sheik Mohammed, often called the "mastermind" of the 9/11 attacks. In December, the presiding judge ordered that evidence or discussion about any harsh interrogation techniques used on the defendants must be kept secret. This, according to the Los Angeles Times, "despite accusations by human rights groups that the government was trying to hide the fact that the men were tortured." 

Posted at 11:24 AM/ET, 01/11/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()
Protestors lined up outside the Newseum Tuesday night for the DC premiere of Zero Dark Thirty.

For a moment, put aside the important and probably irresolvable debate over torture that has been generated by the new film Zero Dark Thirty, which had its DC premiere last night at the Newseum. While the film does not advocate torture, the filmmakers undoubtedly make the argument that brutal and sustained interrogations of suspected terrorists produced useful, maybe even crucial intelligence that led the CIA to Osama bin Laden's doorstep in Pakistan. This is an assertion that the director and screenwriter have backed away from while promoting their Oscar-buzzed movie, perhaps so not to further enrage critics and a few lawmakers who say Zero Dark Thirty describes torture as the key to the CIA's decade-long hunt. 

This critique, though, overlooks the real key to getting bin Laden. The CIA found him through a long and often fruitless process of analyzing disparate fragments of intelligence, gathered through a variety of means and mechanisms. They found him by taking years to put together a complex puzzle. And, when they were focused on the task, by being obsessive about it. All this the filmmakers get right. 

Zero Dark Thirty is one of the most accurate depictions of intelligence work that I've ever seen in film. And of intelligence analysis in particular. This is pain-staking stuff. Slow-going. Often frustrated by a paucity of leads, by competing priorities, and by physical exhaustion. The movie's protagonist, Maya, who is based on a real-life CIA officer, can think of nothing else but getting bin Laden. In one scene, the CIA Director asks Maya what else she's done for the agency in her more than 10 years working there.

"Nothing," she replies. "Nothing else." 

Interrogations provide a major "stream" of intelligence for Maya and her colleagues, one they are reluctant to give up. But there are other streams that prove useful, perhaps more so, even if they flow from the same source--torture. 

Some of the most illustrative scenes in the movie feature Maya poring over reports, video footage, and grainy photographs looking for illusive bits of data, for the puzzle pieces. She doesn't look frantic. She looks exhausted. "Still looking for needles in haystacks?" her colleague asks. Maya keeps looking for years. 

She is particularly focused on one needle, a man she believes is bin Laden's courier. She gets tipped off to his existence by multiple detainees, who had mentioned the man during interrogations. Maya eventually gives the man up for dead. But then the real break in her case arrives, when a younger CIA officer, who has been inspired by Maya, hands her a file with a photo of the courier. It turns out Maya was looking for the man's brother, who had been killed. But the real courier is still alive, and his identity was sitting in a government file for half a decade. 

This is a painful reality of the intelligence business. Human beings get overwhelmed by information and they miss vital clues. "There was a lot of white noise after 9/11," the younger officer tells Maya, trying to explain why this blockbuster lead remained hidden. Lots of tips were coming in. They all had to be vetted. Some got overlooked. Some were forgotten. This was not unique to the bin Laden operation. You can look at just about every major terrorist attack and find some signal that got lost in the noise.  

With the new identity in hand, Maya sets out to track the courier. And this creates more streams of intelligence. Maya's colleague, Dan, buys a Lamborghini for a Kuwaiti playboy in exchange for him obtaining the phone number of the courier's mother, who lives in Kuwait. The CIA traces the courier's calls, but he's always on the move. So, signals technicians fan out in Peshawar and Rawalpindi, two cities in Pakistan where they've seen the courier pop up on the communications grid. They drive through streets teeming with cars, people, and donkeys trying to track the courier's cell signal with eavesdropping equipment. The analysts look like beachcombers with a metal detector looking for buried treasure. 

When they finally locate the courier's white SUV, the CIA pays a network of Pakistani informants to keep tabs on the vehicle's location. Men working at road-side fruit stands or idling by highways discretely jot down the route of the passing vehicle. Finally, the CIA follows the courier to Abbottabad  Pakistan, and to the now infmaous white villa in which bin Laden was living with his family. The agency puts a reconnaissance drone over the villa. It loiters there for weeks, feeding video footage back to CIA headquarters. The rest of the story you know by now

The filmmakers have done an awkward job defending their work. They've been back-pedaling the torture narrative, and they haven't directly confronted their detractors. Before the screening, I spoke to a veteran Hollywood entertainer who said that, in his experience, Academy Award voters tend not to approve of political controversy. So, perhaps the makers of Zero Dark Thirty are keeping their powder dry until Oscar nominations are announced tomorrow morning. 

Screenwriter Mark Boal's frustration was evident last night when he said he knew "for a fact" that some of those lambasting the film have not actually watched it. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, said, "We had no agenda in making this film and we were not trying to generate controversy." 

I don't doubt her. But I suspect that in the close interactions the filmmakers had with top CIA officials, they became persuaded of a view that many intelligence officers I know share: Torture may have been abhorrent. It might even have been counterproductive at times. But it produced some useful information that was added to the mix of what the CIA knew about Al Qaeda. 

Agree or disagree. But it's a point of view, and it's one the film portrays, even if it doesn't promote it. 

Posted at 11:27 AM/ET, 01/09/2013 | Permalink | Comments ()